Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘Music’

How Can I Keep from Singing?*

In Notes on September 2, 2013 at 10:03 pm
photo by Karl Hagen

photo by Karl Hagen

I hadn’t realized until I started listing all the TMA stories related in some way to music, how many of them, whether or not they are primarily “about” music, either mention one or more songs or take a song title as their own. In these stories, as in life, music is not something separate, it is essential. Just as I can’t help breaking into song whenever and wherever one wells up, so I can’t help songs entering my stories at will.

Here they are, then. Though I’ll be otherwise employed for the next few days, they’ll sing on.

13. Paradise Lost

18. Songlines

19. Lively Up Yourself

20. The Bay of Biscay and the Gully Gully Man

25. British TV, Fall of ‘63

34. His Master’s Voice

43. From a Railway Carriage

52. Himalaya

58. Southbound

64. Concert Collage

70. Party Pieces

72. Learnin’ the Blues

80. Who Are You?

85. St. Nicholas’ Day

87. Thanda Thanda Pani or, You Never Miss Your Water…

95. Sail On, Silver Girl

110. The Party

111. Strawberry-Picking Camp

119. Top of the Pops, 1968-69

126. Word Choice: Does it Matter?

127. Going Up the Country

130. Orwellian Jingles

139. Sealed with a Kiss

140. Music Alone Shall Live

142. Route 66

145. Just a little is enough

149.  Get Me to the Church on Time

157. The Day Mick Jagger Called

161. Watching the River Flow

166. In the Bleak Midwinter

171. Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron

174. Con Men, Card Sharks, and Playing a Different Game

178. Talkin’ ’bout My Generation

179. And he laughing said to me

182. Hot Cross Buns

185. Common Sense

189. Goodness Gracious Me!

196. Never No More

200. Roots, Rock, Reggae

202. Tennessee Stud

205. Weeping Willow

208. Zee, Zed, Go to Bed

212. ¡Viva La Literatura!

213. Censorship at Bedtime

214.  A Moment in Time

218. No Baby No Cry*

225. Audit Alert!

230. Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later than You Think)

235. December 5th, 2013

237. Turning Towards the Light

  1. People, Not Personalities

242. Gratitude

257. Leaving on a Jet Plane

262. Oh, to be in England

264. Railways, Real and Imagined

265. Swagmen

368. Night

370. Pre-dawn Raga

372. Real Country

373. Singing

* Enya’s version of this song is hauntingly beautiful.

205. Weeping Willow

In 1960s, 2000s, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Nature, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 27, 2013 at 12:04 am


There is a tavern in the town, in the town,
And there my dear love sits him down, sits him down,
And drinks his wine ’mid laughter free,
And never, never thinks of me.

[Chorus] Fare thee well, for I must leave thee,
Do not let the parting grieve thee,
And remember that the best of friends must part, must part
Adieu, adieu, kind friends adieu, adieu, adieu,
I can no longer stay with you, stay with you,
I’ll hang my harp on a weeping willow tree,
And may the world go well with thee.
— F. J. Adams, 1891

I don’t remember having seen any weeping willows in my childhood in India, and knew of them only through There’s a Tavern in the Town, a song my mother used to sing. Although she would never have said so to us children, she was probably homesick for England when she sang these old songs. That hidden emotion and the longtime association of the weeping willow with parted lovers imbued my image of the tree with sentiment, deep, but non-specific.

It was not until we immigrated to the United States that weeping willows became a common feature of the cultivated landscape, and not until we moved out to the farm in Winchendon and started homesteading ourselves that we learned of the practical dangers of planting them anywhere near a house.  Although the tree is beautiful—one of the first to turn a delicate yellow, then green, in the early spring—and useful for preventing erosion, it craves water, and its large, thirsty roots gravitate toward septic pipes and storm drains, work their way in through cracks and crevices, and soon block them.

When my parents moved into their current house, there was a small weeping willow down in the far corner of their back field, in the lowest-lying part of their property. It was well away from the house and its roots would be likely to gravitate down and ever farther away, so they let it be. It thrived there, and now, twenty years later, it has filled out the entire corner and grown up to its full, mature height.

The weeping willow (salix babylonica) is native to northern China. Being highly desirable, it was traded along the Silk Route to south-west Asia and Europe, and has now spread worldwide. The tree at my parents’ is now so large that it can be seen from the other side of the world. Here’s how we found out:

My nephew Pinakin came to the U.S. from India for his doctoral studies. When he visited us for the first time and I was driving him over to meet my parents, he asked me excitedly if he could navigate. “You see,” he explained, “I’ve looked you all up on Google Earth.” Sure enough, Pinakin gave me flawless directions across town. When we drew up at the house, he exclaimed with satisfaction, “It’s all here: the house, the fields, and the big tree in the corner!” That weeping willow can now be spotted from India via satellite! I can’t quite describe what that made me feel: the tree that has so long been a symbol of parting and loss is now a landmark that our distant loved ones can seek out, zoom in on, and find us by.

Earlier this evening, in the gathering dusk, when I gazed on that tree clothed in its delicate Spring green, with the last rays of the setting sun lighting the adjacent clouds on fire, I thought of my mother in India half a century ago, long before the days of satellites, singing of her distant loved ones.  When I was a child, I thought that the woman in “There’s a Tavern in the Town” was singing, “I’ll hang my heart [not harp] on a weeping willow tree.” I still think that my version describes best what we have hung on that tree, that continues to seek water and light wherever it is transplanted, regardless of the human heart.

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140. Music Alone Shall Live

In 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories on February 18, 2012 at 3:27 pm

As a child, I noticed that the adults in my life seemed to break into song whenever someone used a word or a phrase that recalled one that they knew. Marveling at their massive repertoires, I conceived the idea that a grown-up was someone who knew a song corresponding with every single word in the language, and I longed to attain that enviable state.

As I grew older, I turned into that same kind of adult, who took every opportunity to break into song regardless of the setting, no doubt embarrassing members of the younger generation who, despite the fact that they had music piped into their heads 24/7, seemed to think that singing was an intensely private act that ought to be restricted to the shower. I sang a few lines of a song in class one day, purely to illustrate a point, and later that week a student of mine from another class asked, lowering her voice, whether the rumors circulating round campus were true.

Singing has always been the thread that has sewn together the disparate, far-flung fragments of my life. I’ll never forget an experience I had one summer back in the 1980s, while visiting my dear cousin Sue. Her friend Helena’s boyfriend, who had offered to drive us all over to my Auntie Bette’s house in his car, put the tape of Bob Marley’s Exodus into the cassette player. Six or seven of us, there were, from four to forty-something, jammed into the car singing Jammin’. As we all sang together, Exodus: movement of Jah People, we were united across differences of age, experience, ethnicity, and musical taste. For the duration of that short ride across North London I knew what it was to feel One Love.

Visiting London again in 1996, now in our forties, Andrew and I entered a quiz contest in a Hampstead pub with Sue and her then-twenty-year-old daughter Oleen, and won, acing every category because our collective musical knowledge ranged from the Fifties to the Nineties, and from pop to rock to reggae to house. Each of Sue’s three daughters and each of their five children in turn has different musical tastes, and Sue knows them all in addition to her own favorites from the Fifties and Sixties.

Unlike many other adults who define “their music” as the limited group of songs they came of age with, Sue has stayed young at heart by continuously refreshing and expanding her musical repertoire. In contrast, I realize that I have all the signs of hardening of the musical arteries. Where once I could recite the Top Twenty almost as easily as my ABCs, if I ask myself honestly when last I learned a new song I realize that I can hardly remember a single one less than five years old; to be honest, precious few less than ten, since Nikhil left high school almost a decade ago. It’s not that the new songs are necessarily any good, quite the contrary; it’s rather that every successive generation thinks music has gone downhill since they last had their fingers on the musical pulse of the times.

I’m thinking about music today as I look up the lyrics of songs to to adapt for my dear friend (and sister-in-law) Eve’s sixtieth birthday party, and realizing that although her musical repertoire is continuously growing as she learns new songs to perform in her band, my own knowledge of her favorite songs is sadly dated, ranging from Dominique (1963) to Sweet Black Angel (1972) to Mirror in the Bathroom (1981). For my part, the “new” songs I’ve found myself learning in the past decade have only been new to me, as I’ve been returning to folk, country, blues, old film songs, and bhajans, deepening my musical roots rather than trying to keep pace with what’s current.

By my childhood definition, I’ve almost achieved adulthood, since I can toss you back a few bars of a song for just about any word or phrase you pitch at me; but now I have a new formulation, this one of immortality. In the words of this round, which we sang at school in India in the Sixties:

In the original German:

Himmel und Erde müssen vergehn
Aber die musici, aber die musici

Aber die musici, bleiben bestehn.

and in English:

All things shall perish from under the sky
Music alone shall live, music alone shall live,
Music alone shall live, never to die.

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119. Top of the Pops, 1968-69

In 1960s, Britain, Media, Music, Stories on August 13, 2011 at 12:28 am

My interest in television has been inversely proportional to the number of broadcast channels available. In the United States where, with cable and satellite television in addition to the broadcast networks, an almost unlimited number of shows are on tap all hours of the day and night, it seems that, flip the channels as often as I might, there is never anything worth watching. But at 14, during our 1968-69 sojourn in England, I couldn’t get enough of it. In India there had been no television at all, so the three channels (two of them, BBC1 and BBC2, state-run, and the commercial ITV), broadcasting for just a few hours a day, seemed to serve up a feast of choices. I knew the schedules by heart, could recite them on demand, and spent as much time as I could glued to the goggle box, as my mother and my uncle Ted called it. There were three or four shows that I watched religiously: on Saturday nights, Opportunity Knocks on ITV; on Sunday afternoons, an American import, Lost in Space, on ITV, challenged by BBC in the same time slot with Land of the Giants, also from the United States; and a welcome break during the week, BBC1’s Top of the Pops.

Top of the Pops aired every Thursday evening, the same night of the week that my mother, who was working as a counter clerk at the Hoddesdon post office, had to stay late to balance the books. (She wasn’t allowed to leave until every one of her co-workers had accounted for everything they had taken in, down to the last penny.) The four of us children, my sister Sally and I and our two cousins Jacky and Carol, and sometimes our opposite neighbor Barbara as well, would gather expectantly in the living room, saving space for Mum on the couch, while cousin Jacky did gymnastics on the carpet in front of the little black-and-white set. When we protested that she was blocking our view, she would instead put long-suffering Tipsy the cat through her paces with a series of special cat exercises she had devised.

Uncle Ted claimed that he couldn’t stand the show, but insisted on watching it anyway, for the sole purpose of keeping up a sardonic running commentary about the antics of the performers, to our extreme exasperation. When they gesticulated with their arms, he would say, “Pulling the lavatory chain again,” and as they jerked their legs about, he’d say cryptically, “He’s had the operation.” He particularly delighted in commenting on Israelites, in which Desmond Dekker gyrated as sinuously as if he had nary a bone in his body.

In India, European and American songs tended to reach us a year or two late, and I’d never kept track of the pop charts before, nor have I since. Fortunately, 1968-69 was the best of times for pop music, although in truth we loved almost everything undiscriminatingly, including many songs that I cringe when I hear now. Such was the ardor with which I followed the show that to this day, when a song from that era is mentioned, I find myself murmuring, “six weeks at Number One in ’68” or “Banned by the BBC in ’69.” In 1968 the Beatles’ Lady Madonna and Hey Jude made Number One, as did the Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash and Hugo Montenegro’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, as well as Lennon-McCartney’s ObBlaDi ObLaDa sung by The Marmalade and With a Little Help from My Friends by Joe Cocker.

In May 1968, just three months before we arrived in London, Paris had been taken over by students and workers, nearly bringing down the government and transforming an entire generation, but we knew nothing of all that. To us, Top of the Pops, broadcasting the Beatles’ seven-minute-long mantra-like performance of “Hey Jude,” the BBC’s sedate version of psychedelic special effects, and even the TV dance troupe Pan’s People (whose choreographed pieces accompanied the songs that couldn’t be performed live in the studio), was the epitome of cool.

By 1969, the cultural revolution and the increasing political ferment had managed to filter through even to our suburban living room, with John Lennon’s The Ballad of John and Yoko displacing The Beatles’ Get Back from the Number One spot.  Incidentally, while every teenage girl felt that the Beatles were singing directly to her, I was convinced that the Beatles had written two songs with me in mind. My sister’s nickname for me was Jude, and everyone else called me Jojo. But why was Jojo a man? I was confused. And were they telling me to “get back” to India where I once belonged? One of the boys at school seemed to think so, and teased me about it. (Recently I learned that McCartney had meant the song to mock anti-immigrant sentiments, but changed his mind and made the lyrics more obscure.)


“The Ballad of John and Yoko” was to be the Beatles’ last #1 hit, but it couldn’t be played on Top of the Pops, or on the radio for that matter, because it had been banned by the BBC for blasphemous language (“Christ, you know it ain’t easy”). My daring friend Cylla had a collection of all the banned singles, which included at least two more from 1968-69: Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s steamy Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus, and Max Romeo’s Wet Dream, which left little to the imagination.

photo by REX (

Sweet, sing-song numbers like Sorry Suzanne by the Hollies, corny love songs like Monsieur Dupont by Sandie Shaw, and mellow ballads like Peter Sarstedt’s Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) still rose to the top of the charts, but the times they were a-changing. Brian Jones died on the 3rd of July, 1969 and just two days later, at a free concert in London’s Hyde Park, Mick Jagger gave an awkward reading from Shelley’s Adonais in Brian’s honor and shortly afterward launched into a jarringly raucous rendition of Honky Tonk Women. Hyde Park was only twenty miles from Hoddesdon, but it might as well have been a world away. The closest we came to the experience was watching the video of the performance interminably on Top of the Pops, since it stayed at #1 for five weeks.

For all their teasing and protestations, I suspect that my mother and Uncle Ted enjoyed Top of the Pops as much as we did.  Our tastes in songs quite often coincided, as in the Israeli duo Esther and Abi OFarim’s Cinderella Rockefella, belted out by a tiny woman with an enormous voice, or the young Welsh folk singer Mary Hopkin’s nostalgic evocation of youthful idealism in Those Were the Days (sung to the tune of Дорогой длинною, a Russian song from the 1920s and produced by Paul McCartney for Apple Records). We certainly didn’t just sit and watch passively. We sang along loudly, cheered for our favorites, argued with the ratings, begged my mother for sweets (which she kept in a biscuit tin and dispensed very sparingly), and (in Jacky’s case), did energetic acrobatics on the carpet between acts. In our book, the only other live show that came close was Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks (which by the way, helped to launch Mary Hopkin, who sang Turn, Turn, Turn on the show).

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110. The Party

In 1970s, Britain, Food, Music, Stories on May 15, 2011 at 1:28 am

London, early summer, 1974: It was the first party I had ever thrown. My parents had always thrown parties, lively, generous ones with music and dancing and lots of food and drink. At least, they danced in Greece; in the United States, where, to my mother’s disappointment, people their age didn’t dance at parties, they heaped the dining table with enough to feed the guests for a week, served tray upon tray of savory delicacies, and talked animatedly late into the night. When we were children my mother would organize birthday parties for us that our friends remembered for years afterwards, complete with treasure hunts and games like Squeak Piggy Squeak and jeweled jellies wobbling on the plate. Now I was nineteen and all winter and spring I had been living entirely by myself for the first time in a posh studio flat on Albert Street, in the gentrified part of Camden Town. I had promised friends and family alike that before I went back to America I would give a party, and so after my exams were over I set a date and started making preparations.

First I went down to the Friday street market off the Camden High Street, bought pounds of pink, glistening prawns off a man at one of the stalls, and brought them home wrapped in newspaper. Then I procured rice and peas, potatoes and tomatoes, onions, cashews, and raisins and made sure that I had a good stock of spices: cinnamon and cloves, cardamom and coriander, fresh ginger and garlic. Using the recipes for prawn curry and pullao rice that Mum had written out for me before I left for my year in England, I made a huge batch of each, following her instructions to the letter.

I had invited a diverse crowd, including my friend Barbara and her parents Bob and Ruby, our neighbors from the year I had attended high school in the suburbs of Hertfordshire; Cliff and Dot, some of our oldest and dearest family friends, through whom my parents had met; James and Anna, my avant-garde film-maker landlord and his lovely, extroverted wife—an intelligent woman with a certain dizzy, distracted air whom everyone fell in love with; and an assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins, even those who weren’t normally on speaking terms with each other, since ours was a close-knit family who loved to feud. I was a little apprehensive about how they would all get on, England being a highly stratified society where people of different classes might live cheek by jowl but would never meet or mingle socially.  But because we were the only branch of my mother’s side of the family who lived out of the country we remained close with almost everyone (I say almost, because even my mother, the peacemaker of the family, was not altogether free of the feuding instinct). But I set my fears aside and instead concentrated on laying on enough food that there would be no risk of anyone going hungry and concocting a prawn curry that would make everybody forget their differences.

The day of the party dawned and preparations went into full swing. My cousin Jacky, who was in medical school up in Liverpool, arrived first. My Uncle Ted, her father, had kept us apart as much as possible, afraid that I, living alone as an occasional student in the big, bad city, might be a bad influence on her, but she disengaged herself from her studies for a weekend and threw herself into cleaning and clearing, utterly disarming my usually taciturn landlord with her openness and charming naiveté.  I changed into my party dress,  a sea-green, clingy cotton-knit nightgown I had just bought from Biba, the fashion emporium on Kensington High Street that I thought the height of sophistication. (Biba was far too expensive for me, but fortunately  I was small enough to shop in the children’s department, which sold the same designs for a fraction of the price.) Finally the guests began arriving, dressed to the nines (especially Auntie Bette) and bearing food and drinks that soon crammed my small fridge and overflowed onto every surface in the small flat, turning my prawn curry and rice into a huge, multi-course feast.

I needn’t have worried about the guest list; soon everyone had shed their coats and their inhibitions, and were all talking at once, huddled on my single-bed-cum-divan having heart-to-hearts, swaying and singing and eating together, filling the kitchen and spilling out into the front hall. The older generation were tolerant and expansive, remembering fondly their Bohemian parties with my parents before my sister and I were born; my relatives flirted with my landlords and my landlords flirted right back. Mothers and daughters chatted and giggled, uncles refilled mugs of beer, and everybody lost count of their helpings of prawn curry, telling me that I had outdone myself and that this batch was every bit as good as my mother’s.

We had music, of course, though I can’t quite remember what we played or who provided the sound system. What we must have sung: surely (Wa-wa-wa-wa) Waterloo, the song by the new Swedish band ABBA that had just won the Eurovision Song Contest a few months before, and some of the older favorites, like Mary Hopkin’s nostalgic Those Were the Days and the Beatles’ mantra-like Hey Jude. I imagine that at a certain point in the festivities the older generation reverted to Cockney rhyming slang and old numbers like (Come, come, come and make eyes at me) Down at the Old Bull and Bush; and I’d like to think that Auntie Bette finally penetrated James’ reserve and showed him how to get up on a table and have a good old knees-up.

At some point the noise, the excitement and, eventually, the fatigue, must have overwhelmed me. I remember only vaguely the first of the guests calling out their goodbyes, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in broad daylight to an empty flat that looked as if a tornado had passed through it. I roused myself with an effort and surveyed the damage. The prawn curry had been completely polished off, but there was still a good quantity of pullao rice and peas left over in my biggest saucepan.  As I cleaned up, a few spoonfuls of it right out of the pot were a instant cure for my morning-after grogginess. (Ever since, a large pot of pullao rice has been a staple at all my parties.)

My tall, handsome cousin Billy came by a little while later that morning and took me out to a full English Sunday dinner at a local pub where, despite the feasting of the night before, my appetite was fully restored the moment I laid eyes on the crisp brown roast potatoes and the delectable Yorkshire pudding. The night before, Billy and his younger sister, my dear cousin Sue—who had been legendary dance partners as teenagers—had jived together, to perfection. My memory of the meal with him is bittersweet, though, because soon afterwards he had a falling-out with the rest of the family and I haven’t seen him since the weekend of that mythic party.

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95. Sail On, Silver Girl

In 1970s, Immigration, Music, Stories, United States on February 5, 2011 at 11:34 am
Back Bay and the Charles River, Boston, Massachusetts (Wikimedia Commons)

Back Bay and the Charles River, Boston, Massachusetts (Wikimedia Commons)

There is an image I hold in my mind’s eye that dates from the very first weeks of our arrival in America nearly forty-one years ago. More than just an image, its aura evokes not only a moment in time, but the exact atmosphere of the time and the vibration of my own being at that moment.

My mother, sister and I joined my father in the U.S. in early February, 1970, and I started school at Brookline High right away.  I had no time to miss what I had left behind, partly because, at fifteen and a half, I had attended three different high schools in the past  year and a half, and didn’t know which one to miss anymore.  After having spent 16 months in a kind of limbo in England, waiting for problems in our immigration process to be resolved, I was more than ready to embark upon this new stage in my life. Before we left London my Auntie Angy had taken me and my cousin Lesley to the Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End to see the musical Hair, in which  a colorful crowd of frenetic, free-spirited young people sang, danced, and ran up and down the aisles proclaiming the dawning of a new era. Having led a sheltered life up to that point, I understood very little of what I was seeing, but came away with the vague notion that the students of my new school would more-or-less resemble the cast of Hair.

In some respects, I wasn’t so very wrong. After having grown up with school uniforms and standing to attention when the teacher entered the classroom, I had a lot of adjustments to make. There was no longer a dress code at Brookline High, and with an open campus and young, liberal teachers it was one of the most experimental public schools in the country. Torn jeans and long flowing hair were the norm; we sat in circles rather than rows and called the teachers by their first names; and, within three months of my arrival, the students voted to join the nationwide student strikes in protest of the War in Vietnam and Cambodia and at home, the war on the Black Panthers, and the police shootings of students at Kent State and Jackson State Universities. Plunging into American student life at the deep end was exhilarating but also bewildering.

It can’t have been more than a month after our arrival when Roger, one of my new classmates, invited me to go to the movies with him. I accepted and, amazingly, my parents gave their permission, but I had no idea what to expect. Was this a date? I had never been on one.  Roger took me by trolley and subway across the Charles River to Cambridge, where an experimental movie by a French director was being screened at Harvard University. I don’t think I had heard of Harvard yet, even though I was to enroll there the following year.  I certainly hadn’t heard of Jean-Luc Godard and sat through his film, Sympathy for the Devil, in utter incomprehension.  At the end of it Roger asked me what I had thought of it, but must have taken in the expression on my face and taken pity on me. “I have absolutely no idea what that was about,” he volunteered, and I laughed with him in relief.

It was late afternoon on our return journey, as we took the Red Line from Harvard Square to Park Street Station, emerging from underground after Kendall Square and crossing the Charles on the Longfellow Bridge. The train was crowded, as I recall, and I was standing and holding on to an overhead strap as I looked out of the carriage window to the south and west, across to the neon triangle of the CITGO sign in Kenmore Square and the Boston skyline, over the still, wintry waterscape streaked with the colors of the setting sun.

How did the song reach my ears at that moment? It was a song that had been playing in the background ever since we had arrived in the States, but which had only partially filtered through the haze of my bemusement: Bridge Over Troubled Water, by Simon and Garfunkel.  Someone on the train must have been holding a  transistor radio to their ear, as they were later to wear a Walkman, and later still, an iPod. As there were no earphones, the song wafted through the carriage and merged with the sunset, instantly and forever becoming the soundtrack to the scene indelibly imprinted in my memory. It encapsulates my mood at that moment, my feelings about my rapidly changing life, and the entire tenor of the times.  I can never hear the song without that scene coming to my mind, and without feeling as I did at that moment: a dreamy, uncertain, not-yet-sixteen year-old girl on the brink of a new life in a new country at a turbulent time, drinking it all in, trying hard to understand.

Bridge Over Troubled Water (lyrics by Paul Simon)

When you’re weary
Feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all

I’m on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you

I’ll take your part
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
If you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind

Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind

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80. Who Are You?

In 1960s, 1970s, Britain, Music, Stories, United States on October 19, 2010 at 2:28 pm

The Who were the first big rock-‘n-roll band I ever saw in concert, in November, 1973 at the Lyceum in London. Of all the concerts I’ve attended since, they’re still the band who are the most successful at making the audience feel part of the event, not merely spectators. There comes the moment in just about every Who concert when they perform “See Me, Feel Me (Touch Me, Heal Me)” from Tommy; they turn the lights on the crowd, and band and fans sing to each other, a cappella:

Listening to you, I get the music/ Gazing at you, I get the heat
Following you, I climb the mountain/ I get excitement at your feet

Right behind you, I see the millions/ On you, I see the glory
From you, I get opinions/ From you, I get the story

I’ve seen the Who twice more, maybe three times, since then, but every time this moment is magical. We, the fans, feel that the band belongs to us and that the inspiration they give us is truly reciprocal. It is because they are a part of us that they can give voice to our experience so well. At the same time, anyone who has listened to Tommy, the first rock opera, knows that the song is an exploration and a critique of the phenomenon of fan-dom, of giving up one’s own glory to someone else, whether it is a rock idol or a guru.

The double-album Tommy was my favorite Christmas present in 1970, our first Christmas in the United States. (The year before, while we were still in London, a girl had given a very avant-garde solo dance performance choreographed to Tommy’s “It’s a Boy” at Parliament Hill School’s holiday talent show. I had attended Parliament Hill, my mother’s secondary school in the late 1930s-mid-40s and my cousin Sue’s in the late 1950s-early 60s, for just five months in 1969-70 before our immigration visas came through). I remember spending the school holidays playing the whole thing over and over again with my Brookline High friends, trying to work out the meaning of it all and discussing our interpretations at length. Does anybody know what on earth happens at the end?

Sometime in the 1970s I remember standing up and singing along at a huge Who concert in Boston. I must have been in my twenties by then, and no longer thought of myself as young. There were two teenage boys standing next to us and I remember looking over at one of them at one point and noticing that he too was singing his heart out, and that both of us were grinning from ear to ear. Young as he was, that boy knew every single word of the song, as if he had written it himself.

Inside outside/ Leave me alone.
Inside outside/ Nowhere is home.
(“5:15”, Quadrophenia, 1973)

The dates of Who concerts and album releases, and the lyrics of Who songs punctuate my youth.

In March of 1976, Michael and Dan were due to drive out West—Michael back to Albuquerque, Dan to San Francisco—immediately  after attending a Who concert at the Boston Garden, but when drummer Keith Moon collapsed just a few minutes into the show, Roger Daltrey told everyone to hold on to their ticket stubs and promised that they would return for a repeat performance. On April 1st they amply fulfilled their promise, and Dan and Michael, who had postponed their departure, went mobile immediately after the show.

I’m going home
And when I want to go home, I’m going mobile
Well I’m gonna find a home on wheels, see how it feels,
Goin’ mobile
Keep me movin’
(“Going Mobile”, Who’s Next, 1971)

Hypertext Who at

Back from New Mexico in the Summer of 1979, living in a barn at Sky Meadow, Concord, we sang, as we hoed the rows of tomatoes and eggplants in Andrew’s large garden:

Now I’m a farmer/And I’m diggin’ diggin’ diggin’ diggin’ diggin’
(“Now I’m a Farmer”, Odds and Sods, 1974)

In the late 1970s, living the simple life at White Pond in Concord, heating with wood and sure that the end of the world was nigh, we played Pete Townshend:

River’s getting higher/ No wood for the fire
They saw the messiah/ But I guess I missed him again
That brings my score to a hundred and ten

Keep me turning (I’m hanging on)
Stop me yearning (I’ve had enough)
Keep me turning
While I hand in my backstage pass
(“Keep Me Turning”, Rough Mix, 1977)

Still active in the environmental movement in the early 1980s, we cut-and-pasted issues of No Nuclear News as Pete sang:

Don’t care if they say we are a dying race/ I’d rather be here than any other place
Keep on working, keep on working
(“Keep on Working”, Empty Glass, 1980)

As The Who’s front men, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend made a perfect pair. With his pretty face and rippling muscles (not to mention his strong singing voice), Roger was the perfect vehicle for Pete’s songs. But as the songwriter, Pete Townshend has always been my favorite. Into the 1980s I also followed Pete’s musical explorations outside of The Who, in albums like Rough Mix (with Ronnie Lane) and Empty Glass. If I had a top ten list for the most important cultural figures of the twentieth century, Pete Townshend would most certainly be on it. As writer, musician, and spokesman for our generation, he will always be one of my heroes.

They call me The Seeker/I’ve been searching low and high
I won’t get to get what I’m after/ Until the day I die.
(“The Seeker”, Who’s Next, 1971)

Not everyone idolizes The Who. My cousin Sue, who is a few years older than me, met them once, before they were famous, in a dance club in Camden Town; it can’t have been later than 1964 or 1965, since it was still the era of the Mods and the Rockers. Sue, who has always had a weakness for motorcycles and leather jackets, had a biker boyfriend at the time, so she was a Rocker, while The Who were turned out as Mods—mostly, as Roger Daltrey tells it now, because their manager had told them to cultivate that clean-cut, Ivy League look. “We were just four yobs from Shepherd’s Bush” (The Mod Generation). In those days and venues, there wasn’t much of a separation between the fans and the bands, and the performers used to mingle with the crowd between sets. Apparently Roger called out to her, “Hey, Ginger (Sue was a redhead)—wanna dance?”

Would you believe it—she turned him down.

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64. Concert Collage

In 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories on July 31, 2010 at 10:28 am

Concerts and concert-going have occupied a special place in my life, as they have for many of my generation; not only big rock concerts, but also small punk, ska, and reggae shows, even smaller folk and blues gigs in clubs and cafes, and Indian musical recitals of all kinds. Andrew and I have always managed to find the money for tickets to see, hear, and come together in the presence of our favorite singers and musicians, and they have sent us back out into the world recharged with hope and creative energy. Prophets and truth-tellers for our time, they tell us of ourselves and our condition, and fill us with the courage to face the challenge of our lives.

Here are some of the tickets and ticket stubs from concerts that Andrew and I have attended together over the years, from Ravi Shankar at London’s Albert Hall on August 22nd, 1971, to Patti Smith in New York’s Bowery Ballroom on December 30th, 2002.

Although, given our propensity for hoarding, they are probably stashed safely in a box somewhere, tickets from many of our concerts are missing from the collage above, including: Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry; Mimi Farina, Focus, Holly Near, Pete Seeger, Odetta; Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Cliff, Third World, Bunny Wailer, Sister Nancy; UB 40, the Selecter, the Gang of Four, Elvis Costello, the Frames, Human Sexual Response; Tom Paxton, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys; Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee; Brave Combo (in a category of its own!); John McLaughlin and Shakti, Prabha Atre, Bhimsen Joshi, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Dates and venues are important. It matters that it was 1971 when we first saw Doc Watson play with his son Merle at the Boston Tea Party in the Fenway; 1981 at the Bradford Ballroom, Boston, when the Specials gave what turned out to be their last concert; 1993 at the Tilak Smarak Mandir in Sadashiv Peth, Pune, when the young sitar virtuoso Budhaditya Mukherjee made the hairs on my arms stand on end; 1996 on a tiny stage at the Dublin Castle, an Irish pub in Camden Town, London, when we first heard the Frames and experienced Glen Hansard’s incantatory performance of “Revelate.” Each of these moments in time and place encapsulates its era and allows us to recall it in all its personal and cultural particularity.

There are stories from specific concerts waiting to be told, and favorite artists demanding a tribute; but for now, let these ticket stubs stand as markers for the as-yet-untold stories and for some of the red-letter days of the past forty years. Did I forget to mention how much fun they’ve been? Write to me, if you were there too!

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34. His Master’s Voice

In Britain, Childhood, Greece, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, United States on April 5, 2010 at 12:29 am

Athens, 1962: I still remember the day my parents brought home our first record player. It was so alien to me that I was unable to hear the noise emanating from it as music. Standing by the strange box with its little black disc rotating in a dizzying blur, the metal arm scratching its hard, shiny surface like a fingernail on a blackboard, I struggled to make it all out. Eventually, after many repetitions, I began to recognize the sound as a song, distinct words began to emerge, and Jamaica Farewell came into focus.

How many times I listened to that song, puzzling over the words and learning them all by heart. I felt for the man who had to keep sailing away from the place he loved, and empathized with the “lickle girl” he had to leave in Kingston Town. How sad I would be if my Daddy had to leave me like that.

More records followed, including more by Harry Belafonte, my mother’s favorite. One had the nostalgic Island in the Sun on one side and the raucous Coconut Woman on the other:

Drink your coconut water (shout: coconut!)/Coca’s good for your daughter (coconut!)/Coca’s got a lot of iron (coconut!)/Make you strong like a lion (and here my father would roar like a lion himself.)

We had an EP with two Belafonte songs on each side: Day-O and I Do Adore Her on one, and Will His Love be Like His Rum and Dolly Dawn on the other. One particular line used to frighten little Sally, who was only two:

When Dolly go into a turn/Old man laugh and their eyes begin to burn.

Why did their eyes burn, she wanted to know.

Mum brought home another puzzler: this was called “Ottilie Sings Bessie.” I didn’t know who either Ottilie or Bessie were, or why one would want to sing the other.  Mum liked to play one side—called, inscrutably, “St. Louis Blues”— but for me, listening to it was like going back to the beginning when nothing made any sense: all I could hear was the harsh screeching of tomcats fighting in the night. Even when I could make out some of the words, the track remained discordant and grating. (It was more than a decade later, in the United States, when I finally came to appreciate the majesty of Bessie Smith.)

Most of our other early records were Greek popular hits of the day—by Theodorakis, Tsitsanis, Kazantsidis—and I learned to sing them all. My parents used to have frequent parties when we children were sent to bed, the grown-ups broke out the records and the retsina, and everyone danced. Sally and I would peek out from our bedroom door to see our parents in lines, doing the cha-cha-cha. Later, we  watched them dance the Charleston, and just before we left Greece, they were starting to do the twist. (In America, Mum complained, people didn’t have proper parties; they didn’t eat real food—raw vegetables dipped in sour cream didn’t count—and more importantly, they didn’t dance.)

In England in 1963, my Auntie Bette had a LP of Harry Belafonte live at  Carnegie Hall, and we listened to it again and again. We loved Man Smart, Woman Smarter, though it wasn’t until much later that I would come to understand why that late-50s American audience went deathly quiet when Belafonte sang,

I was treating a gal independently/ She was making baby for me/The baby born, I went to see/His eyes were blue, it was not by me!

Another favorite of ours on that album was Matilda. In the chorus, Belafonte invites different parts of the audience to sing along. When he comes to “Women over 40!”, there is nothing but nervous laughter until, coaxed by the handsome Belafonte (“sing a lickle louder”), a few brave women begin to sing.

At the time, my mother was only 35, and Auntie Dorrie had just given her a new record for her birthday, an American single by a trio called Peter, Paul, and Mary. The A side was a song called Blowing in the Wind, which provided me with a new puzzle: why would “ants, sir” be blowing in the wind? (I was not to learn of the Civil Rights Movement for another five years, when, at school in India, we heard of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and the two American exchange students sobbed; or of Bob Dylan until still later, after we had immigrated to America.)

Before we left for India, we visited my Uncle Charlie’s antique shop (“junk shop,” my mother snorted) in Queen’s Crescent, Mum’s old neighborhood in North London. In a generous flourish, he gave me an old gramophone when I admired it, a heavy wooden box with a wind-up crank and massive ear trumpet, and the logo of a dog sitting in front of it, bearing the words, “His Master’s Voice.” Sadly, we had to leave it behind,  but I often think of that dog, ears cocked, head inclined quizzically. What did he hear?

About five years ago, Harry Belafonte came to the Calvin Theater in Northampton and I bought tickets for my mother and myself. Although his voice was hoarse now, he was as handsome and gracious as ever, still the ambassador of all that is best in America, indulging his adoring audience with all the old favorites. When he came to “Matilda,” and called, “Women over 50!”, Mum and I both sang out, loud and clear.

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19. Lively Up Yourself

In 1970s, 1990s, Family, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Stories, United States on March 13, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Ziggy and Bob Marley, 1976 (

I must have been in my thirties when my Dad gave me a piece of advice:

“As you get older, it is important not to succumb to inertia.”

I remember his words often, when I can’t seem to tackle a pile of washing-up, get started on a new project, or simply step outside into the sunshine. In Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, inertia translates as tamas, one of the three gunas, or essential qualities present in nature. There is sattva, or purity; rajas, or worldly energy; and tamas, darkness or inertia. While tamas has a part to play in a balanced universe and a balanced individual, it should not be allowed to take over.

I have a talisman against inertia: twin images I carry in my mind’s eye. The first dates back to April 25, 1976, at a concert by Bob Marley and the Wailers at the Music Hall in Boston. Toward the end of a glorious set, Bob Marley brought his eight-year-old son Ziggy out on stage for a joyful performance of Lively Up Yourself. The father sang the tune and the son joined in with his squeaky descant, all the while jumping up and down like a bouncing rubber ball, springing up effortlessly again and again as if he were on the moon.

Lively up yourself, and don’t say “No”/Lively up yourself, ‘cos I say so.

The effect was electrifying: we all sprang to our feet as well; just watching the leaping child made us feel as light as he looked.

The other image is posted in front of me as I sit at my desk.  Dated February 25th, 1994, it is a pencil drawing by Nikhil at nine. In it, a small but solid boy is leaping, mid-air, hair standing straight up, arms upstretched. A speech bubble sings out, “Yes!”

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